ANNAPOLIS – Senate Democrats are using publicity from a controversial U.S. Supreme Court ruling to introduce a package of legislation targeting corporate spending in Maryland elections.
The three bills arrive in the shadow of last month’s Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission ruling, which struck down restrictions on political spending by corporations in federal elections.
President Obama criticized the decision in his State of the Union address last month, and a Washington Post-ABC News poll released this week found that 80 percent of respondents opposed the ruling. The poll reported broad agreement on the matter between Democrats, Republicans and independents.
Maryland isn’t immediately affected by the ruling because state law already treats corporations the same way as individuals. And some Republican opponents say Democrats simply want to place limits on corporations, while not restricting unions.
But proponents say the changes brought about by the Supreme Court ruling could have ramifications in the state.
“I think it will have a tremendous effect on Maryland elections,” said Sen. Jamie Raskin, D-Montgomery. “It invites all of American corporations, including the ones in Maryland, to become active political players through expenditures in campaigns.”
Independent expenditures, which include TV commercials that support or oppose voting for an issue or candidate, are made without the funding or approval of the candidates themselves.
Current state law holds corporations and individuals to the same standards when it comes to political contributions – up to $4,000 to any one candidate and $10,000 in total direct donations during a four-year election cycle – but doesn’t require any disclosures regarding independent expenditures.
Raskin is the lead sponsor on a bill that would ban independent expenditures by a person receiving $5,000 or more in state contracts.
“That pay-to-play system creates real dangers of corruption and the appearance of corruption,” Raskin said.
The potential for corporate control over political elections is dangerous, said Sen. Brian Frosh, D-Montgomery.
“We don’t want Exxon or Microsoft or any of these giants dictating who gets elected or defeated all by themselves,” Frosh said.
Frosh introduced a bill that would require corporations to obtain the approval of two-thirds of their stockholders before making independent campaign expenditures.
“We’re going to at least insist on corporate democracy,” Frosh said. “This is money that would otherwise be going to the shareholders, it’s money they’d be spending on dividends as opposed to trying to influence an election.”
A bill introduced by Sen. David Harrington, D-Prince George’s, would require businesses and nonprofits to disclose what they spend on independent campaign expenditures.
Hearings on the bills are scheduled for next week.
The legislation is likely to draw fire from some assembly members who are concerned that the proposed restrictions could violate the rights of corporations.
“The Supreme Court has issued a ruling that the First Amendment is involved in all these cases,” said Sen. Andy Harris, R-Baltimore County. “I think there are going to be constitutional issues with all these bills.”
Sen. Richard Colburn, R-Dorchester, criticized the legislation calling for stockholder votes for trying to limit the rights of businesses while giving unions a pass.
“If they’re really concerned about political contributions, they would have included labor, but they’ve chosen not to do so,” Colburn said. “They want to restrict first amendment rights for businesses only.”
“It’s a liberal knee-jerk reaction to the Supreme Court decision,” Colburn said.
Many unions are corporations themselves, Frosh said.
“If not, and somebody wants to propose an amendment to extend (the bill) to other union expenditures or unions that are not covered … I don’t have a problem with that,” Frosh said.
Trying to limit corporate spending may be a futile task, said Dave Schwartz, director of the Maryland chapter of the conservative advocacy group Americans for Prosperity.
“Corporations will find ways to influence who they need to influence,” Schwartz said. “They will buy access.”
The three bills coming up this week are among several pieces of election-law legislation introduced this session. Sen. Paul Pinsky, D-Prince George’s, who co-sponsored the three bills, has introduced legislation calling for public financing in state elections. Pinsky co-sponsored a bill with Raskin banning corporations from making campaign donations and expenditures all together. Pinsky is a teachers’ union organizer.